A QUESTION OF ACCOUNTABILITY

7 October 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The creeping, sickly sense of déjà vu that descends upon the journalistic staff of this newspaper when a debate on Monaghan General Hospital commences at local authority meetings in this county is, we are sure, shared by the readers who peruse the resultant reports of the proceedings.
A forthcoming initiative by the provincial newspaper sector nationally has occasioned a delve into the files of the Northern Standard and it is quite remarkable how much newsprint has been expended by us over the past five decades on the efforts made at local level to resist attempts to downgrade, and on occasions close, our hospital facility.
An argument can be made that the effect of both the endeavours of politicians and campaigners to defend the hospital, and the depth of coverage and editorial stance this newspaper has devoted to them, has been limited – particularly so in recent years when vital health services have been wrested away from Monaghan by a structure of administration that is effectively invulnerable to the restraints that the political and popular will can impose.
We feel, however, that considered analysis renders this argument unsustainable.
Very important victories have been won in relation to the hospital in the past by the force of the people’s will as expressed through political, legal and social channels.
The mirror held up by the Northern Standard to the many twists and turns of this campaign down the years presents, we feel, an accurate reflection of the depth of public feeling, and fulfils a core function of the local press in the process.
Newspapers that continue to devote substantial coverage to local authority meetings are sometimes accused of old-fashionedness, or worse, journalistic laziness, plucking the handy, low-hanging fruit of Co and Town Council copy rather than reaching more ambitiously for the more succulent pickings.
This take on journalism forgets the vital watchdog role of the press.
Just as the press are afforded access to the proceedings of our courts in actualisation of the principle that justice must be done and seen to be done, so are media representatives present at the public proceedings of elected councils to embody the rights of the public to observe and assess how the people they have elected onto these bodies go about the work which they have appointed them to do.
At the end of the day it is a question of accountability – and while it is not the function of the media in society to pass authoritative judgement on the performance of elected public representatives, it is very much their function to enable the people to hold local politicians to account for their stewardship by reporting on their activities as fully and fairly as practicable.
It is in adherence to that principle that, despite the déjà vu, we continue to keep our readers fully informed about the views of our local politicians on the issue of Monaghan General Hospital.
And it is perhaps deeply ironic that the latest debate in the county’s chambers on the matter – initiated by motions discussed at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council – seems to highlight with stark clarity the total lack of accountability among those elsewhere who hold the hospital’s fate in their hands.
As at Monaghan Town Council’s recent meeting, Monday’s discussion was used in part by their political opponents to deliver another bashing to Fine Gael for promises on the safeguarding and restoration of hospital services that are not being kept.
We have been over this ground editorially very recently before, and will confine ourselves to the comment that the opportunity for retribution upon FG’s local representatives has at this point been well availed of in both Monaghan meeting chambers, to the point where further castigation would seem superfluous – even Fianna Fáil, whose councillors were subjected to some at times highly intemperate criticism for the performance of their party at national level in relation to the hospital in the past, must have extracted more than their pound of flesh by now.
We find ourselves in close accord with some of the sentiments expressed by the newest member of the Co Council, FG’s Ciara McPhillips, during Monday’s discussion. Although her own contribution was not entirely free from political riposte, her appeal for the Council members to “stop arguing and stand up together” on this issue will strike a chord with the public who must by now be wearied, and very cynical, with the playing of the hospital blame game.
If there was a comment that comes close to assessing the current state of play on this issue, it came from the admirably plain-speaking South Monaghan representative P J O’Hanlon: “Let’s be honest and tell the people out there that the HSE is running the health services. Let’s get rid of the circus, let’s tell the people the truth.”
Although he was attacking current Health Minister Dr James Reilly at the time, Colr O’Hanlon’s remarks stand as an accurate assessment of the present situation and hint strongly at the root cause of the Monaghan General Hospital dilemma.
It has long been taken as a given of the democratic system that when the people elect a government, its members are responsible for governing, or running, the country, framing policy and making the decisions that get that policy implemented.
Government might have been this simple once upon a time, but it is not so any more. In the area of health, the responsibility reposed by the people in its government began to be abrogated a long time ago – as far back, perhaps, as the 1960s when threats to the status of Monaghan’s hospital first emerged.
The cumulative product of this steady surrender of responsibility is our current system of health service administration, where the Minister of the day seems powerless to do otherwise than to defer to the HSE, “an unaccountable monolith” in the words used by Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy on Monday.
That seems to be the current state of play, and Dr James Reilly does not seem able to do anything to change it.
If the Minister is as powerless as he seems, then he won’t be able to accede to the requests embodied in the SF and FF motions passed on Monday and reverse the pending reduction in the operating hours of the Minor Injury Unit in Monaghan – or even defer this measure for a time given the difficulties being experienced at Cavan and Drogheda hospital at present, even though as a medical professional he will surely be in sympathy with the strong case made by some Co Councillors for such a step.
But the Minister is surely in charge of his own destiny to the extent that he can agree to meet the Co Council to discuss this issue – and divest himself for that encounter of the coterie of HSE handlers who accompanied him on his last meeting with local representatives.
We reiterate our recent appeal to the Minister to visit Monaghan for a clear-the-air meeting on the future of the hospital. As Colr O’Hanlon said, “Let’s get rid of the circus, let’s tell the people the truth.”
At the end of the day, it is a question of accountability.

Comments are closed.